Peruvian Scholar Writes & Defends the First Thesis Written in Quechua, the Main Language of the Incan Empire

We hear many trag­ic sto­ries of dis­ap­pear­ing indige­nous lan­guages, their last native speak­ers dying out, and the sym­bol­ic and social worlds embed­ded in those lan­guages going with them, unless they’re record­ed (or recov­ered) by his­to­ri­ans and archived in muse­ums. Such report­ing, sad but nec­es­sary, can some­times obscure the mil­lions of liv­ing indige­nous lan­guage speak­ers who suf­fer from sys­temic neglect around the world.

The sit­u­a­tion is begin­ning to change. The UN has called 2019 the Year of Indige­nous Lan­guages, not only to raise aware­ness of the loss of lan­guage diver­si­ty, but also to high­light the world’s con­tin­ued lin­guis­tic rich­ness. A 2015 World Bank report esti­mat­ed that 560 dif­fer­ent lan­guages are spo­ken in Latin Amer­i­ca alone.

The South Amer­i­can lan­guage Quechua—once a pri­ma­ry lan­guage of the Incan empire—claims one of the high­est num­ber of speak­ers: 8 mil­lion in the Andean region, with 4 mil­lion of those speak­ers in Peru. Yet, despite con­tin­ued wide­spread use, Quechua has been labeled endan­gered by UNESCO. “Until recent­ly,” writes Frances Jen­ner at Latin Amer­i­can Reports, “the Peru­vian gov­ern­ment had few lan­guage preser­va­tion poli­cies in place.”

“In 2016 how­ev­er, TV Perú intro­duced a Quechua-lan­guage dai­ly news pro­gram called Ñuqanchik mean­ing ‘All of us,’ and in Cus­co, the lan­guage is start­ing to be taught in some schools.” Now, Peru­vian schol­ar Rox­ana Quispe Col­lantes has made his­to­ry by defend­ing the first doc­tor­al the­sis writ­ten in Quechua, at Lima’s 468-year old San Mar­co Uni­ver­si­ty. Her project exam­ines the Quechuan poet­ry of 20th cen­tu­ry writer Alen­cas­tre Gutiér­rez.

Col­lantes began her the­sis pre­sen­ta­tion with a tra­di­tion­al thanks­giv­ing cer­e­mo­ny,” writes Naveen Razik at NITV News, “and pre­sent­ed her study titled Yawar Para (Blood Rain),” the cul­mi­na­tion of sev­en years spent “trav­el­ing to remote com­mu­ni­ties in the moun­tain­ous Canas region” to “ver­i­fy the words and phras­es used in Gutiérrez’s works.” The exam­in­ers asked her ques­tions in Quechua dur­ing the near­ly two hour exam­i­na­tion, which you can see above.

The project rep­re­sents a sig­nif­i­cant per­son­al achieve­ment for Col­lantes who “grew up speak­ing Quechua with her par­ents and grand­par­ents in the Aco­mayo dis­trict of Cus­co,” reports The Guardian. Col­lante’s work also rep­re­sents a step for­ward for the sup­port of indige­nous lan­guage and cul­ture, and the recog­ni­tion of Quechua in par­tic­u­lar. The lan­guage is foun­da­tion­al to South Amer­i­can cul­ture, giv­ing Spanish—and English—words like puma, con­dor, lla­ma, and alpaca.

But it is “rarely—if ever—heard on nation­al tele­vi­sion or radio sta­tions.” Quechua speak­ers, about 13% of Peru­vians, “are dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly rep­re­sent­ed among the country’s poor with­out access to health ser­vices.” The stig­ma attached to the lan­guage has long been “syn­ony­mous with dis­crim­i­na­tion” and “social rejec­tion” says Hugo Coya, direc­tor of Peru’s tele­vi­sion and radio insti­tute and the “dri­ving force” behind the new Quechua news pro­gram.

Col­lantes’ work may be less acces­si­ble to the aver­age Quechua speak­er than TV news, but she hopes that it will make major cul­tur­al inroads towards greater accep­tance. “I hope my exam­ple will help to reval­ue the lan­guage again and encour­age young peo­ple, espe­cial­ly young women, to fol­low my path, “she says. “My great­est wish is for Quechua to become a neces­si­ty once again. Only by speak­ing it can we revive it.” Maybe in part due to her exten­sive efforts, UNESCO can take Quechua off its list of 2,860 endan­gered lan­guages.

Relat­ed Con­tent:  

Opti­cal Scan­ning Tech­nol­o­gy Lets Researchers Recov­er Lost Indige­nous Lan­guages from Old Wax Cylin­der Record­ings

The Atlas of Endan­gered Alpha­bets: A Free Online Atlas That Helps Pre­serve Writ­ing Sys­tems That May Soon Dis­ap­pear

The Tree of Lan­guages Illus­trat­ed in a Big, Beau­ti­ful Info­graph­ic

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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